Reporter's Notebook: In the Emergency Operations Center


Members of the Division of Public Safety followed Hurricane Sandy since the middle of last week




On Monday morning, members of the Division of Public Safety gathered in the Emergency Operations Center to anticipate the potentially disastrous effects of Hurricane Sandy.

I stood outside at 11 a.m. amidst the preliminary stages of Sandy. Wind gusts sent rain spiraling in my face as I awaited the police car escort that would take me to the EOC.

It pulled up, and I entered the car, thankful that this was the first time I had gotten in the back of a cop car. “You staying safe out there?” the policeman asked.

I nodded and ignored the irony of making three extra turns to pull up in front of the Penn Police headquarters. I probably could have arrived there on foot five minutes earlier.

When I got to the EOC, it smelled of coffee, bagels and fruit — a breakfast befitting a team preparing to spend the next 48 hours monitoring Sandy.

“Help yourself,” Deputy Chief of Police Michael Fink said.

I waited anxiously to experience my first hurricane, but I was surprised at the casual and relaxed atmosphere in the EOC.

“We’ve been fully involved in following this since the middle of last week,” Fink said.

According to Fink, at least two DPS staffers would be in the EOC from Monday morning to Wednesday morning to track Sandy.

There were only a few DPS members in the EOC at one time, but while they were on shift, they stared intently at live camera footage around campus and watched local news coverage of the storm. A scribe recorded everything that transpired in the conference room.

“We are looking for any medical emergencies, any structural issues and any building damage,” Fink said. “Our number one concern is making sure people are safe.”

Associate Director of Operations and External Affairs Stacy Ritchey added, “There are a lot of layers to the preparation work.”

One of these layers, a conference call between the Crisis Management Team, took place at noon after Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush arrived with her dog Stella — an integral member of the team — according to Rush.

Stella feasted on a bagel as DPS members brought Rush up to speed on what had transpired in the EOC.

Even though classes were canceled, DPS did not get a day off.

The CMT, directed by Penn President Amy Gutmann, held several conference calls prior to and during Sandy’s effects on Penn.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the remaining staffers in the EOC continued to prepare for the worst. This included possibilities of “downed trees, downed power lines and flooding,” Fink said.

Under direction of the CMT, DPS had issued a UPennAlert at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday canceling University operations for Monday and Tuesday. They followed it up with an alert at 9:30 p.m. on Sunday detailing which essential student services would be available during the storm.

As the storm approached landfall, I left to hole myself up in my apartment during the most dangerous parts of the storm.

Contrary to my worst fears, by Tuesday it was clear that the most severe of conditions the Penn community had prepared for never came to pass. I called DPS for an EOC update, and they told me the worst thing to happen was one fallen tree on Walnut Street between 38th and 39th streets.

“Fortunately, the University was virtually unscathed,” Rush said.

Even though Sandy’s effects on Penn were less severe than expected, Rush said the University was lucky to have the opportunity as a community to be ready.

In September, DPS had reviewed protocol of a mock campus-wide emergency. All of their preparation was put to use over the last few days.

At 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, DPS released a UPennAlert dictating that Penn will resume normal operations Wednesday. They followed it up at 12:30 p.m. with a list of operational student services.

Staff writer Caroline Meuser contributed to this story.

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